A look back at the UAE's growing film industry

From blockbuster productions to local successes, the regional movie industry has had a monumental decade and continues to grow

Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, which features the breathtaking Burj Khalifa stunt. Photo: Paramount Pictures
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In August, Abu Dhabi's twofour54 announced the launch of an ambitious 40-hectare studio site with the aim of attracting more international productions to the United Arab Emirates.

Called twofour54 Studios, the complex will be located in the extended area of Khalifa Industrial Zone Abu Dhabi. It will comprise 11 soundstages, six adaptable sets and a 3,000-square-metre water tank. It will also feature 7,000 square metres of office space and a host of other facilities equipped for film and TV production, post-production and screenings.

The studio has been described as “future-proof ”, making it one of the latest strides the country is taking to position itself as a regional filmmaking hub. There is a storied cinema heritage in the UAE that dates back several decades. Yet, as an industry, it wasn’t until 20 years ago that the country began laying the foundations as a filmmaking destination.

A landmark moment in the country’s film history was the inception of the now-defunct Dubai International Film Festival, which held its inaugural event in 2004. The festival was held at the Madinat Jumeirah, which had just opened. Over the course of six days in early December, the festival screened 76 features, retrospectives and short films. More than 13,000 people attended, and the event was considered a success. It went on to run until 2017.

One of the highlights of the inaugural festival was its Cultural Bridge programme, which aimed to address the tension between the Middle East and the West. It featured eight films that sought to bridge the gap between the two parts of the world.

Less than a year later, in 2005, Dubai would be depicted on the big screen in Syriana, a film that sought to give a more nuanced perspective of the region. There were international productions that preceded Syriana, including the Tim Robbins-starring Code 46, a joint BBC Films and Revolutionary Films production, as well as several Hindi and Malayalam productions, such as Dubai (2001) and Hawas (2004). However, none were as large-scale and globally promoted as Syriana.

The political thriller had a stellar line-up, including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer, Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Peet. How Syriana has aged is a matter of discussion, but for its time, the film was significant in its effort to move away from stereotypical depictions of the Arab and Islamic worlds on the silver screen. It offered a layered portrayal of its Arab and Pakistani characters, showing complexity in their motives. The film sought to break a racist mould that was, unfortunately, only beginning to take shape in Hollywood in the wake of 9/11, with movies such as The Kingdom further solidifying a narrative that would take years to unravel. Parts of The Kingdom were shot in Abu Dhabi, posing as Riyadh, and filmed at sites including Emirates Palace. However, in the years since its release, the Peter Berg film has been broadly criticised for its xenophobic depiction of the Middle East.

Syriana was largely well-received by critics and earned Clooney an Academy Award for best supporting actor. In the local context, the film’s sweeping desert landscapes of Dubai proved photogenic on the big screen, even if the UAE was never explicitly part of the film’s plot. It was a springboard of sorts for the UAE’s blockbuster potential. That same year, in 2005, The Dream by Hani Al-Shaibani became the first Emirati film to be distributed across UAE cinemas. It was not the first Emirati feature film to be shot in the UAE though, as film critic Hind Mezaina points out in an article on the Alserkal website, that title belongs to Aber Sabeel by Ali Al Abdool.

Yet, The Dream’s release, coupled with Syriana’s global appeal, set the beginnings of an industry that, for some time, would mark the parallel growth of the UAE as a filmmaking hub for both local and international projects.

Over the next few years, several other global productions would travel to film in the UAE, not only looking for desert landscapes, but also for futuristic flair. In 2007, Abu Dhabi also sought to cement itself as a filmmaking destination. The Middle East International Film Festival – which would be rebranded as the Abu Dhabi Film Festival a few years later – was launched. The inaugural festival featured 152 films, which were screened across a handful of venues in the capital. In the first few years, however, the festival focused on international films. The event, which ran until 2015, would eventually shift its focus to Arab cinema.

Abu Dhabi’s creative industry had another landmark moment in 2008, with the launch of twofour54, named after the geographic co-ordinates of the capital. The organisation would eventually launch several initiatives dedicated to furnishing an ecosystem for local productions and giving aspiring filmmakers and creatives the tools to develop their craft. That same year, Dubai would launch another film festival, dubbed Gulf Film Festival, which was dedicated to films hailing from the region. Like Diff, it also had a market that aimed to support filmmakers from the Arab world. It was an especially promising time for local directors, with several platforms to network, screen and create works.

This potential was soon elucidated in 2009, with the release of City of Life by Ali F Mostafa. A multilingual film that aimed to reflect the kaleidoscopic realities of Dubai, City of Life caught the attention of critics across the world. For many living in the UAE, the feature was a respite from the glitzy image of Dubai that was proliferating globally at the time. It provided a more authentic portrayal of what living in the UAE was really like.

Mostafa’s film starred several globally recognisable names in its cast, including Jason Flemyng, Natalie Dormer, Sonu Sood, Alexandra Maria Lara, Ahmed Ahmed and Javed Jaffrey. City of Life was, at the time, a calling card that the UAE was more than just a tourist destination and its photogenic landscape. Along with releases from the creatives such as Nayla Al Khaja, Nawaf Al Janahi, and Nujoom Alghanem, signalled the capacity of local creatives and the potential of their work to reach international audiences. The film was a springboard for a new generation of filmmakers who sought to tell oft-overlooked stories from the UAE and the wider region.

For a while, it seemed the country’s growth as a filmmaking hub would bolster both local and international projects. However, it would eventually tilt towards the latter, tilt towards the latter, making it easier for blockbuster productions to shoot and promote their works in the UAE, rather than those by local filmmakers.

The Abu Dhabi Film Commission as set up in 2009 to further boost appeal in bringing large projects to the UAE. The commission offers cashback rebates and other incentives for international productions. The move would be pivotal in bolstering an industry and the country’s GDP.

A study commissioned by ADFC in 2013 estimated that for every Dh1 invested in the production rebate programme, “Dh4.5 of GDP will be generated within the emirate of Abu Dhabi”. The economic impact of the programme in 2014, the study estimated, would be Dh82 million. Meanwhile in the neighbouring emirate, Dubai Film and TV Commission (DFTC) was launched in 2012 following a decree by the emirate’s crown prince, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The commission is dedicated to providing permits and offering a “one- stop shop”, as their website labels, for all production needs and “to ensure that filming in Dubai is seamless and attractive”.

These initiatives propelled the UAE as a filmmaking destination. In the past 13 years, many blockbusters have travelled to film in the UAE, including scenes that have gone on to become very popular. These include Salman Khan’s song sequence in Dabangg, which inspired many fans to shoot and share similar clips in UAE’s deserts, and Tom Cruise’s famous Burj Khalifa climb in the 2011 film Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol. The Liwa Desert had a prominent place in Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens. In 2014, Unforgettable became the first Bollywood film to be produced in the UAE. The love story Humari Adhuri Kahani had a pivotal scene in the Dubai Miracle Garden. The breathless Etihad Towers scene in 2015’s Furious 7 remains one of the most riveting stunts in the franchise. The 2016 sci-fi film Star Trek Beyond would base its futuristic cityscapes in Dubai, with scenes shot in Meydan Racetrack, The Burj Al Arab, Sheikh Zayed Road, JLT and Downtown Dubai.

More recently, Abu Dhabi had a starring role in the Ryan Reynolds-starring 2019 action film 6 Underground, as well as the Pierce Brosnan's The Misfits in 2021. The vast sandy expanses in both instalments of Dune were shot in Abu Dhabi. Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning, which was released earlier this year, was where the new Midfield Terminal at Abu Dhabi International Airport was seen by the public for the first time, and the 2023 Shah Rukh Khan thriller Pathaan had several exhilarating scenes shot in Dubai.

However, as the industry booms for Hollywood and Bollywood, the same cannot be said for local filmmakers, who have had a harder time screening their films locally. This is in part due to the cancellation of some of the topmost film festivals in the country, and while there are some that remain, there isn’t a film market that can fill the void they leave behind.

Creatives such as veteran Emirati actor Mansoor Alfeeli, who starred in the Emirati war film Al Kameen (2021), previously voiced to The National the importance of institutional support for local films and creatives.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t much support for local filmmakers,” he said earlier this year. “There needs to be more effort in backing our young talents. The production and distribution costs are an afterthought, which is discouraging many emerging talents.”

“Emirati films are also almost an afterthought for cinemas here. Our films screen in the morning or early afternoon when few people attend. The priority is given to foreign films.”

Yet, there is hope, particularly with the announcement of twofour54 Studios. The move has come as a new regional player is taking measures to position itself as a global filmmaking hub.

In 2018, Saudi Arabia lifted a 35-year-old ban on cinemas, and the move had wider repercussions than anyone could have imagined.

The revoked ban didn’t only encourage the construction of new cinemas. It signalled the beginning of a major industry within the kingdom, creating thousands of new jobs and legitimising an avenue of creative expression. Saudi Arabia is also offering cashback rebates and incentives to attract international productions. Meanwhile, Film AlUla’s studio complex is aiming to provide an ecosystem that makes it easy and accessible for films to carry out entire productions within the historic area. The first part of the complex encompasses an impressive 30,000 square metres.

It includes two world-class soundstages, production support buildings, workshops, a pyro and special effects building, catering facilities, a sound recording studio and a 6,500-square-metre backlot, which can which can be used for additional support facilities when big shoots require it.

For neighbouring countries vying to position themselves as a regional hub, such as the UAE, Saudi’s seriousness in boosting its film industry has sparked a sort of friendly competition, and twofour54 Studios can be interpreted as such. The move may prove to be beneficial for positioning the region as whole, instead of a singular country, as a global filmmaking destination. But while a race may be underway, it is important not to neglect local efforts and productions, which offer as much in boosting the creative economy as enticing blockbusters to the region.

Updated: December 15, 2023, 3:09 AM